A bowl of jello gives the same EEG reading as a human brain, my college psych professor used to say. This vaguely distressing observation comes to mind while contemplating the first two weeks of March in New York, which saw the opening of the 2006 Whitney Biennial followed fast on its heels by five contemporary art fairs, all running simultaneously over a long weekend during Mar. 9-13. Add that to the usual New York art cacophony, which happened to include a show of new video from China at P.S.1 in Queens, a survey of contemporary photography from Africa at the International Center of Photography and a show of Palestinian art at a gallery in Chelsea, for instance, and you can see how the poor art critic might suffer from information overload. Everybody wants to come to New York.
But start with the Whitney Biennial. For those who like wacky, multilayered, postmodernist spectacles, the biennial is a hit. No search for straightforward authenticity here -- itís a house of mirrors. The poetic duplicity of the exhibition title, "Day for Night," has been much remarked upon, as has the showís refusal to be limited by national borders, its original reason for being. Indeed, one biennial favorite, Francesco Vezzoliís Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidalís "Caligula" (2005), comes from a Milan-based Italian artist who has nothing to do with America -- and everything to do with it, just like his short film. Perhaps thatís the point.
Itís worth noting that the comic climax to Vezzoliís five-and-a-half-minute "cinemacolor" romp through ancient Roman decadence comes when the empress uses male ejaculate as face lotion. As everyone must know by now, Vezzoliís film tips its hat to the original x-rated movie concocted in 1979 by Penthouse Magazine publisher Bob Guccione, but features its own cast of real actors, including Karen Black, Barbara Bouchet, Benicio Del Toro, Milla Jovovich, Courtney Love, Helen Mirren and Michelle Phillips.
The idea of national exhibitions, and even nationalist museums, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, is so outdated that people simply ignore the contradiction. In fact, the biennialís new global reach is all too apt in the era of the new American imperium, as the entire world comes under "our" aegis. Still, it does sting a bit that the 2006 biennial is organized by two foreign-born curators -- Chrissie Iles is English, Philippe Vergne is French -- and that the French one felt grand enough at the biennial press preview to joke that the museumís name would henceforth be spelled "Ouitney." Thank goodness we know that "nationalism" is a construction, or we might get upset.
Scrambling things up even more at the biennial is the imaginary curator invented by Iles and Vergne to suggest that their curatorial collaboration had resulted in the "birth of a third person." This lighthearted conceit was given a name, Toni Burlap, that was meant to be of uncertain gender. But whatever its sex, this creation quickly turned into a Frankenstein Monster, as unknown pranksters launched a Toni Burlap blog at www.toniburlap.com, which proceeded to develop a life all its own, and one not altogether favorably disposed towards the biennial or its organizers. One post, for instance, promised to include in the Whitney show a sculpture made of Cheez Whiz to commemorate layoffs at Kraft Foods (a corporate cousin of Altria, the tobacco company that is sponsoring the biennial) -- prompting a quick disavowal from Iles (or someone pretending to be Iles).
The biennial exhibition itself is something of a mess, with a lot of art that looks like junk. The museum elevators open onto the fourth floor, for instance, to reveal a huge hole chopped in the sheetrock wall by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer, opening into a pair of minimalist, rotating chandeliers made of tree limbs and candles. The lyrical scene -- cited as a favorite by many museum visitors -- reminded me of a tenement squat under demolition. On the far wall is a mural-sized black-and-white painting of a man, fully dressed, slouching back on some pillows on a bed. The picture turns out to be a self-portrait by the Italian-born New Yorker Rudolf Stingel, based on a photograph taken by artist Sam Samore.
Curiously, I had just seen such an image at a Boston Museum of Fine Arts press lunch, in a 1878 painting by Mary Cassatt of a little girl and her dog sitting in blue armchairs in their parlor, described by curator Erica E. Hirshler as the very image of abandoned decorum, both on the part of the bored child and the experimental painter -- a motif now making its reappearance, 128 years later, as an emblem of the avant-garde, ca. 2006. Samore told me that he was also thinking of Mantegnaís Dead Christ from ca. 1490 -- so not only is the Whitney Biennialís version of todayís artist a slacker, heís also a dead savior.
The other floors are characterized by similarly dissolute off-the-elevator semiotics. On the third floor, Liz Larnerís lovely RWBs (2005), suggests that art is a pile of discarded aluminum tubing, dressed up with pretty fabric and ribbons (itís painterly, for a sculpture). And on the second floor, the landing is filled by a life-size Conestoga Wagon made from scrap wood by Matthew Day Jackson, holding a plastic owl inside and lit from below by fluorescent lights. Um, art as an outmoded vehicle of knowledge exploring a technological future?
In the back are a couple of galleries containing works by several black artists -- Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans, Robert A. Pruitt. Thereís a table of African fetishes, a tailorís dummy wearing what looks like a Ku Klux Klan outfit, a model of a cottage overgrown by a forest of nappy African hair, charming drawings and paintings of young people. It seems like the biennialís black ghetto, if a person can say such a thing without getting everyone bent out shape. It turns out that the section is an installation of works by four Houston artists who also work as a collective, Otabenga Jones & Associates. The collective itself had one of the best installations in the show, a brick wall with two small openings, through which viewers could make out an island landscape, populated by some figures on a beach. Titled Exploring the Outer Reaches of the Garden of Pro-Black Sanctuary (2006), the work gives a great post-colonial spin to Marcel Duchampís famous peephole piece, Etant Donnťs (1946-66), channeled through Paul Gauguinís search for a primitive island utopia.
The entire biennial isnít an abject mess -- rooms by Gedi Simony, Anne Collier and Josephine Meckseper, along with most of the perimeter theater spaces, have more refined esthetics. Most focused of all is "Down By Law," a separate (and hidden away) gallery of largely political works by some 54 artists, including David Wojnarowicz, Tim Rollins & K.O.S., Paul Cadmus, Gregory Green, Dread Scott, Taryn Simon, Kara Walker and Weegee. My favorite is a piece of red-and-white striped cloth by Sergei Jensen, a Danish/Serbian conceptual painter based in Berlin, that resembles a disfigured American flag while remaining, in fact, a piece of cotton fabric. The sense of revolutionary meaning in the room, as opposed to the rather nasty air of bohemian decadence in the rest of the museum, is palpable.
All the art fairs opened a week or so after "The Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night," and art lovers were treated to a different kind of hodgepodge -- the bazaar, a pleasant enough model for an art exhibition, though one that is now wearing a bit thin. The five art fairs can be quickly characterized by comparing them to New York neighborhoods -- the Armory Show is the Madison Avenue gold coast, high-priced and sleek and a little stuffy; LA Art is SoHo, small but upscale, very civilized, with parquet floors and (California) wine-tastings; Pulse is Park Slope, rows of boho brownstones; Scope is the Lower East Side, a funky maze of treasures; and DiVA is, well, any dark room with more than one TV playing simultaneously.
And put them all in China, because the crowds were unbelievable. Another promising sign was the newsboys outside the Armory Show, shilling free copies of what seemed to be a new magazine, Art Fairs International, though it turned out to be only Abraham Lubelskiís indefatigable NY Arts magazine, upside-down and backwards.
At all the fairs, sales were so good that theyíre hardly worth enumerating. Just presume that everything sold, or will sell, sooner or later. Adam Sheffer of Cheim & Read noted that a pair of French collectors bought Jenny Holzerís Rib Corner (2005), a major installation that tells a love story in amber and white light, for over $250,000, and on the way out of the booth turned towards the Juan Usle painting (price around $125,000) and said, "And throw that in too."††
One highlight of the Armory Show was the Lehmann Maupin booth, which had been done up at the direction of ťmigrť artist Ashley Bickerton with bamboo walls and Indonesian furniture made of black wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl decorative patterns. Bickerton is the new Gauguin, having relocated to Bali some years ago, and the artworks he periodically sends back to New York (this installation was done in collaboration with Sonnabend, Bickertonís New York dealer) are redolent of what can only be called island mania, festooned with driftwood and all sorts of flotsam, and decorated with the artistís high-key California Kool-style self-portraits as a wacky beachcombing fool. Just check out his photograph on the Lehmann Maupin website. I want that hat. An exhibition of new work opens at the gallery in May.
Most of the fairs have issued their post-show reports, and the Armory Show notes that 1,570 people went to its benefit vernissage, which raised $600,000 for the Museum of Modern Art. Overall, the fair had 47,000 attendees, an increase of about 20 percent from the 40,000 visitors in 2005. Among the visitors was designer Donna Karan, who picked up Gabi Trinkausí You Can Sleep (2006), a striking collage of a nighttime New York cityscape, for a sweet $23,000 from dealer Georg Kargl of Vienna.
The big attendance numbers can be a mixed blessing. Zach Feuer wryly noted that he did all his business in the first day or two, and that Saturday and Sunday were nothing but tourists. "Itís torture," he noted, good-naturedly. Feuer had sold the major works in his booth, including an installation of six paintings and a sculpture by German artist Anton Henning for prices ranging from $9,000 to the high $20s, and hit a new high for a work by Danica Phelps, $24,000 for a work that traces a yearís worth of her economic transactions. Art advisor Ellen Kern bought it for a client.†
Leaning against the wall of Feuerís booth was a raggedly looking cardboard box, all taped up and stuffed with paper and other litter. The painter Jules de Balincourt had bought it from a man on the street for $300, thinking that it was a computer (it was not -- add "charming naivetť" to Balincourtís bundle of esthetic attributes). Now he was trying to get his money back by selling it to a collector. "There were no takers at $300," Feuer deadpanned. "So Iím raising the price to $1,500."
Another popular exhibit at the Armory was Daniel Burenís Travail in Situ (2006), a small chamber lined with stripes and mirrors, creating the familiar illusion of endless, repeating spaces. In a common enough avant-garde effect, Burenís stripes have morphed into their complete opposite -- what was once a conceptual insignia of art at its most elemental is now a populist carnival attraction. Brought to the fair by Galleria Continua from San Gimignano, the work was purchased for $80,000 by an Asian collector. Galleria Continua, as it happens, is opening a new branch in Beijing.
Distributed over Piers 90 and 92 over the Hudson River, the Armory Show seemed labyrinthine, despite the commodious site, and also seemed strangely claustrophobic. The booths felt cramped, though this could have been a function of my state of mind, not to mention the weekend crowds. Not all of the Armory Show participants were happy. Many of the nonprofit booths, 6 x 8 foot spaces that cost $2,000, were jammed in a row at the very end of the pier, and saw very limited traffic. "Weíre writing a joint letter of protest," said Judith Richards of Independent Curators International, in a heated moment.
Also at the end of the pier was a digital projection by Wolfgang Staehle of the view across the Hudson, otherwise blocked by the pier's east wall. "Itís Union City, N.J., live," he said. "It looks better here than in real life." The work is sold in complete 24-hour cycles. "Each day consists of about 9,000 digital photos," Staehle says. It was $25,000 at Postmasters.
For LA Art, the Los Angeles galleries rented a finished exposition space in the Altman Building on West 18th Street and threw up some walls. Bringing a slice of L.A. to New York was a smart idea, and the 16 galleries, from ACME and Rosamund Felsen to Daniel Weinberg and Soshana Wayne, were all worth seeing. "LA Art gives a vignette of whatís going on in Los Angeles," said dealer Christopher Grimes. And, since it was organized by the dealers themselves, it had a more collegial feel. Grimes enlisted the painter Peter Hopkins, who lives in Connecticut, to help him watch over the booth. Hopkinsí own brightly colored, metallic abstractions were also on view.
Hopkins showed me one of the more interesting things I saw all week, a two-minute-long vid by Marco Brambilla made for the new video iPod. Brambilla is a film director -- he made Demolition Man (1993) and Excess Baggage (1997) -- who has taken up video art. The piece here, titled Synch (2005), consists of three sections, each made of snippets from Hollywood movies that are 1/15th of a second long, which Hopkins said is the most that a person can use without copyright permission. One section consists of porno scenes, the second is fistfights and the third is audience reactions, accompanied by a soundtrack of a Buddy Rich drum solo. Very elemental. The work is $5,000, in an edition of ten, with the iPod included in the bargain. I admit it, much of the appeal was in the sleek, black hardware.
As for the Scope art fair, for its latest incarnation it underwent quite a transformation, morphing from a neatly contained hotel fair into a sprawling, almost warren-like installation in the ground floor of a huge industrial building on 11th Avenue and 46th Street. Despite problems with the opening -- the building was shut down by the fire department after inspectors found high levels of carbon monoxide -- spirits were high, especially in the section turned over to artists, who had set up a shooting gallery (complete with a compressed-air paintball gun, a costumed barker and a live, taunting human target in homemade protective gear) and a racetrack through the space with an assortment of makeshift electric vehicles. The former was crafted by the indefatigable duo of Jesse Bercowetz and Matt Bua, a team that specializes in such post-Tinguelean constructions, and the latter by The 62, a group of four artists -- Andrei Kallaur, Hubert Mc Cabe, Matthew McGuinness and Morgan Sheasby. Installed here and there in the space were several gumball machines that had been customized by artist Risa Puno to dispense not gum but small plastic balls containing "gossip" on slips of paper. "I want to get laid," said one. Ah, youth.
Scope was also premiering, as an artist project, an amazing video apparatus called Perpetual Art Machine, or PAM (it has its own website, currently in beta, at www.perpetualartmachine.com). Devised by four young artists, who have a highly developed tech jones, Chris Borkowski, Aaron Miller, Raphaele Shirley and Lee Wells, PAM aggregated more than 300 short video clips by artists, classified them in dozens of different categories, and projected individual vids on a screen. At Scope, the whole thing was run off a touch video screen, and worked really well, changing channels at a momentís whim. Major media companies, are you paying attention?
Otherwise, the galleries at Scope seemed obsessed with either the carnal or the spiritual. For an example of the former, one could go to Samson Projects from Boston, which had devoted much of its booth to the increasingly popular drawings and watercolors of languid nudes by Suzannah Sinclair, many of them based on Ď70s erotica and done on raw wood panels. Sinclair had a solo show at the gallery in January. The works are priced at $1,200-$3,000.
As for the spiritual, one could find "soulsculptures" by Markus Vater at Art Agents Gallery, which was opened in Hamburg in 2000 by Julia SŲkeland and Nasim Weiler. Vater is a 35-year-old German artist living in London, and the conceit with the "soulsculptures" -- actually, color photographs of the sculptures -- is the familiar one that the camera is stealing a bit of the sitterís soul. One picture shows a young man apparently levitating above a mattress. The photo is $1,300 in an edition of five.
In its post-fair report, Scope announced that it had 15,000 visitors and did a total of $7 million in sales. Miami collector Ella Cisneros purchased a total of 30 works by Astrid Komtheuer, Neeta Madahar and Christian Gieratis from the Galerie Poller in Frankfurt, according to the report, and another collector spent $100,000 on three large photographs of mysterious, mist-enshrouded forests by the South Korean artist Bin-u Bae, also at Galerie Poller. Brown Bag Contemporary, which was founded in 2004 in San Francisco, sold the all the works in its booth, including a large cityscape construction by Tracey Snelling.
Three months after debuting in Miami, Pulse opened its second edition in the Lexington Avenue Armory at East 26th Street, and most of the dealers we talked to -- there were ca. 60 in all -- were very pleased. "Itís crazy, things are flying out of the booth," said Berlin dealer Volker Diehl, who started it all ten years ago when he helped launch Berlin Art Forum as a counter to the then-dominant Art Cologne. "Of course the world has changed totally twice over since then." Diehl had some new works by Janine Gordon in his booth, as well as a large grid abstraction thick with scumbled paint by Angela Dwyer, a 40-something Berlin artist whose work, Camille Paglia wrote, combines the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The painting was priced at $15,000.
In its post-fair report, Pulse reported attendance of 7,300, and noted that individual sales had soared into the six figures. Artists whose works were much in demand, according to the report, were Kenichi Yokono (who did an artist project), Yoram Wolberger (at Mark Moore Gallery) and John Gerrard (Ernst Hilger). Supercollector Anita Zabludwicz bought work by Jo Coupe from the artist-run Workplace Gallery in Gateshead, England, Pulse said, while Michael and Susan Hort took home 12 works by Laura Lancaster, another Workplace artist. Duke Riley, who shows with Magnan Projects in Chelsea, won the fairís new $1,000 Impulse Prize.
With fairs in Cologne and Paris and plans for new ones in Taiwan, Tokyo and possibly Beijing, the DiVA empire is expanding -- and the New York fair, down at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Battery Park City, was great for those who could afford to spend the time it took to take in 30 hotel rooms of video and digital projections. One repeat participant was Chicago gallerist Julie Walsh, who opened her space 13 years ago. She admitted that sales were scant. "But Iíve made lots of contacts," she said. "Curators, magazines, European TV stations, bloggers."
At DiVA, Galeria BegoŮa Malone from Madrid had a hauntingly sexy vid by Nick and Sheila Pye of a female fire spirit in a forest glade, or so she seemed via some simple superimposition ($1,500 in an edition of 12). At Play Gallery for Still and Motion Pictures from Berlin was Crash Tests (2005) by Moscow artist Alexey Buldakov, in which simple black-and-white emblems bash into each other repeatedly, to a thudding soundtrack, and comic effect -- even when the airplane repeatedly thumps into the skyscraper, gradually blunting the planeís nose (€3,000, in an edition of three).
After some convalescence, it was back to the chilly streets of Chelsea last Saturday, to try to catch up a bit with some of the local fare. On the way home I was passed by a guy with a red balloon, who suddenly lost his grip on it. The balloon floated up and eastward at a quick pace, looking just like a retreating red dot. Now, thatís an ending I can use, I thought.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.